Is Mitt Romney the John Kerry of 2012?

Bill Whalen Research Fellow, Hoover Institution
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Here’s one way to explain this year’s election to distracted and disconcerted Boomers: Mr. Peabody’s way-back machine.

Democrats, if they could go back in time, would set the dial to 1936 (keeping the course amidst a rough economy) or 1948 (a feisty incumbent denouncing a Republican Congress). Republicans, could they pull the lever, would return to 1980 (late-breaking voters rejecting a beleaguered incumbent) or, ironically, the same famous upset of 1948 (disregard the headlines).

But the year that best suits the present contest is 2004. That doesn’t bode well for Republicans, as it suggests that Mitt Romney is destined to end up like John Kerry — a challenger who got close, but not close enough in the swing states. And, more ominously, it means the GOP as a national party has bigger problems than an underperforming national ticket.

First, the Romney-Kerry parallel. Setting aside the shared traits of personal affluence, voting residence and an uneasy stride on the campaign trail, the two challengers have this much in common: they’re one-note candidates and, for their parties, stop-gap solutions. Like Kerry in 2004, Romney in 2012 embodies the triumph of pragmatism over passion. Eight years ago, in an election dominated by the Iraq war, Democrats chose a standard-bearer who just happened to be a decorated combat veteran. In 2012, Republicans went down the same rabbit hole: the economy being the dominant issue, why not go with the candidate best suited to talk about job-creation?

However, Kerry failed to define his candidacy beyond the war issue. The campaign trotted out at least a dozen different slogans (“The real deal,” “America deserves better”), but was over-reliant on fuzzy populist phraseology (“I’m on your side”). Romney, to his credit, has stayed out of the same shallow end of the jingoistic pool, but he finds himself pressed for details on his immigration, Medicare and tax policies.

And, like Kerry, Romney finds himself painted in a corner by a more ruthless opponent. In 2004, the Bush re-election effort got the jump on Kerry as an unprincipled flip-flopper, while Swift Boaters smeared his service record. In 2012, the Obama campaign has effectively branded Romney as an out-of-touch plutocrat who’ll lay waste to the public safety net. Meanwhile, Obama-friendly super PACs do their best to deconstruct Romney’s record of success at Bain Capital. Like Kerry, Romney has been slow to respond to the charges (just ask swing-state Republicans, who keep waiting for the rebuttal to those Obama ads claiming Romney will raise taxes on the middle class).

So what does this portend for Republicans? In the short term, it’s a tendency to overlook larger shortcomings as merely cosmetic in nature. Take, for example, the argument that Republicans would be better off with New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie at the top of the ticket (just as Democrats in 2004 said it’d be a different race with Hillary Clinton as the nominee). Yes, Christie has a blue-collar draw that Romney lacks. But could he do a more effective job of explaining the GOP’s awkward stances on immigration and entitlement reform?

It’s not unlike suggesting that the 2012 Yankees would thrive with Babe Ruth hitting cleanup — overlooking the fact that Ruth never faced slider-throwing, left-handed relief specialists.

A Romney defeat would also raise questions about the Republican Party’s long-term prospects. The good news for Republicans: it didn’t take Democrats long to recover from the frustrations of 2004. But it was an either-or choice come 2008: Clinton or Obama.

The bad news for the GOP: it’s not the same simple choice. If Romney loses, Republicans will be left with at least three avenues toward 2016: Santorum-led social conservatives; Christie-led reform governors; and a tea party with no particular figurehead (keep an eye on South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint). Not the same simple either-or choice.

Perhaps Romney will prove all of this speculation wrong — and, as in 1948, he will get to hold up a mistaken headline on election night. Otherwise, Republicans are headed for their second consecutive loss.

Bill Whalen is a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Follow him on Twitter.